The erratic history of Grammy's best new artist award hopscotches from bull's-eyes (The Beatles) and head-scratchers (A Taste of Honey) to one-hit wonders (Starland Vocal Band) and scandals (Milli Vanilli). And then there's always speculation about the category's curse: win it and risk fading (Paula Cole, Jody Watley, Shelby Lynne, Christopher Cross, Men at Work, Tracy Chapman, Arrested Development).
This year's five contenders appear to be a solid group likely to resist the prize's traditional threats, says Questlove, a presenter at the Grammy Awards airing Sunday (CBS, 8 p.m. ET/tape delay PT).
"I don't know if the jinx theory still holds today, at least professionally," he says. "In personal terms, well, Amy Winehouse (who won the 2007 trophy) isn't with us anymore."
The musician, writer and producer agreed to evaluate and handicap the 2012 slate. His credentials? He's the drummer for The Roots, the Grammy-winning neo-soul house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and sees a parade of new and established artists every week. He's produced artists from Jay-Z and Al Green to Winehouse and John Legend. And he's a self-described "walking Spotify" in the process of digitizing his 70,000-record collection.
"Most music consumers get what's fed to them, and then there are hunters and gatherers like me," says Questlove, 41, currently soaking up the Black Keys, Duke Ellington's late phase and bygone psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection.
Here's how he sizes up the new artist field:
"She'll wind up the winner," Questlove says of the hip-pop sensation whose debut "Pink Friday" peaked at No. 1 and spawned "Super Bass," a beat-crazy smash that has sold close to 3.8 million downloads. "The Recording Academy is part shock and awe, as with (winner) Esperanza Spalding last year, but it's also about the big story, and that's Nicki. She started as a street rapper, got buzz with some YouTube clips, got with Lil Wayne and played the Madonna card to the hilt, reinventing her image."
While her persona has eclipsed her art, "she's quite incredible at her craft," he says. "The Grammys haven't championed a female emcee of this caliber since Lauryn Hill in 1998."
"I genuinely like everyone in this category, but Bon Iver is my favorite," Questlove says of Justin Vernon's indie folk group, which impressed critics with 2008 debut "For Emma, Forever Ago" and broadened its audience with June's self-titled disc. "I happened to be in the right Starbucks at the right time when they played his album, and I got it. That CD stayed in my car all summer. "Perth" is my favorite driving song of the year. "That said, what I like never registers with the voting academy."
The rapper, signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, bowed at No. 1 with "Cole World: The Sideline Story."
As was the case with Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Drake, Cole's debut fell short of previous mixtapes, "especially his mind-blowing Friday Night Lights," says Questlove. "Not to say it's lackluster, but you have to go for what you think the public wants on an album. An album is business and a matter of survival. On mixtapes, you get to be more of yourself.
"If this were based on his mixtapes, I'd say, yes, it's deserving. I loved that he produced his own material. On the album, he had other people, and that was disappointing. I thought he might be a new version of Prince. This will probably fall under the radar of the voters."
The hot electronic dance DJ/ producer "is the biggest surprise," Questlove says. "It's the first step toward acknowledging a new movement since the inception of the rap category in 1988. It's likely he won't win, but this is inclusive and the most progressive entry the academy has allowed in this category. Skrillex wouldn't be my driving music, but he's highly effective. He's shown a vast range of styles beyond mindless, fist-pumping club music."
The Band Perry
The country music of siblings Reid, Kimberly and Neil Perry, nominated on the strength of a self-titled debut album that has sold 1.1 million copies, impresses Questlove, "but I'm not that much of an expert," he says.
"They're cool," he says. "They had a very big year. But they went under my radar more than the other acts. There's a perception that music is in decline, but there are too many artists to keep tabs on."